LFF 2020: I Am Samuel Review
Just a few minutes into I Am Samuel, we bear witness to a shocking act of homophobic violence: cameraphone footage of a man being beaten by a braying crowd, mocking his perceived femininity after discovering his sexuality. This man is not Samuel, the subject of director Pete Murimi’s debut documentary, but the threat that at some point it could be is firmly engrained into an otherwise naturalistic and unsensationalised look at rural life in a country that still carries the repugnant laws introduced when it was under British colonial rule.
Samuel is a gay man who has always buckled under pressure from family and wider Kenyan society to conform - to give his parents grandchildren and a daughter in law they can be equally proud of. Upon moving to Nairobi after growing up on a farm, he meets and falls in love with Alex, and over the course of five years, Murimi has followed Samuel’s struggles to be true to his identity while also living with the constant dread of what will happen if word got out about it.
The central flaw of I Am Samuel is, paradoxically, the factor that makes the character study transcend borders. Murimi mostly separates the personal from the political, giving the briefest context to the homophobic laws still in practice in Kenya, to focus on the mundanity of Samuel’s everyday life, and his inability to publicly express his love. With more countries adopting a far right, homophobic rhetoric, and countries like Poland declaring entire counties “LGBT-Free Zones” and Hungary changing the constitution to declare transgender people non-existent, the daily struggle against the system portrayed in I Am Samuel doesn’t feel like a horror separated by continents.
Why is this a flaw? Well, divorcing the political from the personal means that the film doesn’t offer a thorough commentary on the country’s specific brand of homophobia, with Samuel’s anxieties the same felt by thousands of LGBTQ people living in deeply conservative nations. Of course, that isn’t the film Murimi was aiming to make - this is an attempt to humanise somebody Kenya’s legal system would imprison for acting upon his romantic desires, his film putting a face to the inhumanity of the country’s laws. And this admittedly does not detract from its prescience, and the fact that the western world’s slide into authoritarianism makes it easy to imagine being in Samuel’s shoes at some point in the future. But when placed next to a documentary like Welcome to Chechnya, which balanced a gruelling depiction of government advocated LGBTQ genocide with the horrifying accounts of those attempting to escape, not placing Samuel’s story within a less generalised context feels like a missed opportunity to make something more politically incendiary.
The documentary is released only two years after the country’s first LGBTQ film was produced, 2018’s Rafiki, which followed a blossoming lesbian relationship in Nairobi, and the widespread anger from the families and surrounding communities. The reaction to that film in its home country, where at one point it was banned from being screened unless the director filmed a less happy ending, makes it a fascinating companion piece to I Am Samuel - and both films frustratingly feel too simplified, portraying widespread societal homophobia without ever tackling the root cause.
I Am Samuel plays at the London Film Festival
You can read more of our coverage of LFF 2020 here.